Every day at 8:00 a.m., Gus Cuomo shuffles up three steps, enters the front door of the Atwater Senior Center, and switches on the lights. He heads toward his office, eyes adjusting under thick bifocals. Mr. Gus, as I’m told to call him, is 84 but doesn’t need a cane. Grabbing printed sign-up sheets, he passes beneath an American flag mural whose slogan wishes him, as it does every morning, health and happiness. To get ready for the seniors who arrive at 8:30 a.m., he makes coffee and turns on the television. Mr. Gus then greets Filomena Fiondella, the center’s 42-year-old director, who has worked with him at 26 Atwater St. for over a decade.
Filomena is paid; Mr. Gus is not. He doesn’t mind. He’s been at the Atwater Senior Center for 18 years and its president for 14, and he has no plans to step down. The members of the center that prides itself on being a “Home Away From Home” for New Haven elderly have become his family.
“Besides,” he considers with a chuckle, “who would run against me?”
Augustine William Cuomo was born in Brooklyn on April 5, 1929, nine years after his parents emigrated from Italy and six months before the Stock Market Crash. When he was a year old, the family moved to New Haven because his dad got a job at Sargent, a manufacturing plant. His mother worked at a sewing factory and baked her own bread to save money. He was one of 14 children.
At age 7, Mr. Gus helped support his family as a shoeshine boy. When he was 9, he set up pins at the bowling alley. When he was 11, he worked as a dishwasher, sold Yale and Harvard football letters, and saved $1,400 to help his mom buy a house. At 16, he dropped out of school to join the navy. “I wanted to be a doctor when I was young, but I wasn’t that smart,” he says, a grin emerging beneath his bristly gray mustache. “But I always thought, you keep doing things until you find what you like.”
He’s been a railroad worker, a Seaman Second Class, and a short-order cook at the Hotel Taft. Mr. Gus once worked simultaneously as a cutter at a corset factory and as a builder for a casket company just downstairs. During the casket stint, he came up with a contraption for drilling coffin handles, but the company sent the foreman to New York to present the invention instead of him. “He got the credit, and I got laid off!” he says, his Brooklyn accent growing stronger as he gets excited.
At age 34, Mr. Gus met Margaret Buchanan, a Scottish-American from West Virginia, on a blind date on New Year’s Eve, 1963. He fell for her immediately and bought an engagement ring nine months later. He didn’t mind that she was 44 and a widow, and already had four kids and a grandchild. “I told her, ‘Age don’t mean nothing,’” Mr. Gus says before proudly telling me that he now has 12 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren.
The Atwater Senior Center is a two-story brick building with mismatched windowpanes and a painted plywood sign. Until 1964, the property contained a school for kids needing support not offered in the public schools. When the city created the senior center, it didn’t bother to remodel the building.
The main space, once a gymnasium, still has padded brown walls and basketball hoops. Under the gym’s large fluorescent lights, Mr. Gus mingles with seniors sitting in folding chairs. On one gym wall hangs a WPA mural painted in 1935, the thing Mr. Gus loves most about the center. It’s all nursery rhymes — Humpty Dumpty, the Pied Piper, Pinocchio. In front sits an artificial Christmas tree that stays up year-round because someone accidentally threw out the box. Mr. Gus decorates it with ghosts for Halloween, hearts for Valentine’s Day.
Off to the side of the gym are other rooms: the 12-table dining room where Mr. Gus leads bingo on Wednesdays; the card room, whose walls are covered in super-glued puzzles, the Blue Room, where Mr. Gus hands out food every Friday. On the craft room wall, opposite a photo of Mr. Gus at a party in a disco suit and a rainbow Afro, is a display of more than fifty yellowing obituaries labeled “Loving Memory.”
When Mr. Gus first came to Atwater in 1995, it was one of 12 senior centers in New Haven. Six years later, a dip in the city’s budget reduced the number of centers to six. When the 2008 economic downturn hit, Mayor DeStefano’s cost-cutting budget pared down funding for senior centers even further.
Now, with over 13,000 seniors living in New Haven, Atwater is one of three centers that remain. Mr. Gus says it’s the largest in the city; he calls it the United Nations for the diversity of its members.
The people who keep Atwater running are mainly seniors themselves. In 2011, when federal cuts scaled back the meal program to four lunches a week, a senior named George rallied volunteers from Trinity Church to cook the extra meal. Another member, Nella, is in her 90s, can’t see well, but still teaches seniors how to weave rugs. Filomena taught herself Spanish to better serve the center’s Hispanic population, and once a month, Mr. Gus takes seniors to Foxwoods Casino.
Three years ago, he and Filomena organized a fashion show to raise money. Six elderly women strutted down Atwater’s gymnasium in clothes on loan from Dressbarn. Eighty-five people bought tickets. Mr. Gus’s grandson, a manager of a North Haven Subway, donated $200 worth of sandwiches. 6 feet turkey, 6 feet Italian.
Filomena interjects her boisterous voice into our conversation every so often.
Filomena: “Gus, did you tell her you’re a Knight of Columbus?”
Mr. Gus: “Yeah, I showed her the picture, Fil.”
Filomena: “Did you tell her about your surgeries? It’s a miracle you’re even walking!”
[He hadn’t. They were extensive.]
Filomena: “Gus, did you tell her you’re a gigolo? He gets all the women!”
Mr. Gus, raising his hands in mock offense: “All the Spanish women are after me!”
At 11:30 a.m., Mr. Gus’s cowbell clangs through the building, the Pinochle player with the highest score at the time wins, and the seniors line up for lunch. It reminds Mr. Gus of his childhood. “We were always hanging around outside,” he says, “At 12 o’clock every day my father would whistle and all 14 of us would run up the stairs for lunch. The neighbors would say, ‘There go the Cuomos!’”
In the dining hall, Mr. Gus always sits at a middle table at the end chair, two seniors to his left and two to his right — card players only. He prefers eating in silence. “Growing up, when we sat at the table to eat, no one said a word,” he says. “My father always said if you talked while you’re eating, you’re fighting with death.” I ask what his father meant, and he explains by relating a time he saved a senior who’d choked on a chicken bone while gabbing with her friends. “I did that new technique,” he says, “You know, the one where you hug ’em.”
After lunch, Mr. Gus tells me he came to the center at the suggestion of a friend after his wife died in 1995. “She passed away in May and I joined in July,” he says. “I decided to volunteer because, what else was I going to do? I didn’t want to stay home in the four walls, worrying and, you know, brewing and everything.” He moves his hand to rest on his knee and adds, “I didn’t want to be alone.”
Mr. Gus had eight sisters, five brothers. Now, he’s one of seven left. In 1996, just a year after his wife’s death, his only son passed away. He shows me a picture of his family standing outside his daughter Eileen’s house at Hammonasset Park. He reads off the names from right to left and tells me his grandchildren live out of town, so he sees them mostly around the holidays.
That’s fine, he says, because he has a family here, too.
Mr. Gus calls Filomena his granddaughter, and to her amusement and partial dismay, people believe him. His favorite story about Atwater is the one about Brice. “One of the children calls me Grandpa. His name’s Brice and his grandmother Bernice, rest her soul, passed away this year,” he says. “One time Filomena was working with his grandmother and I was in the gym, and he comes running in there. ‘Grandpa! Grandpa!’ They all looked, ‘cause he’s African American. And I said, ‘Yeah that’s my grandson. I’m everybody’s grandpa.’”
Seven years ago, Mr. Gus went to an elementary school dressed as Santa Claus. Sitting in front of a painted cardboard fireplace, he asked 300-some children what they wanted for Christmas (including a kid who pulled down the fake Santa beard and asked why there was a black mustache underneath, to which Mr. Gus replied, “That’s for the summer!”). He tells me he still has a Christmas card his wife gave him years ago — she wrote that he was her Santa Claus all year long.
From his desk he pulls out a bag of toys he keeps ready for when kids visit. When he sees me smiling at them, he gives me a small troll doll with electric pink hair to take back to my dorm room. I’ve talked to Mr. Gus for just a few hours, but I already feel like calling him Grandpa, too.
In the craft room, four middle-aged women are trading secrets to living a long life. One suggests exercise. Filomena tells them she knew a 109-year-old who told her he’d lived so long because he read a lot, never smoked, never drank, didn’t watch television, and ate liver and onions twice a week. The women squeal and scrunch their noses.
Mr. Gus leads me past the women to the obituary board, where he points out a few memories. “This is Marie,” he says, his fingers reaching toward a 2009 obituary that ends, “You will always be in our hearts.” He says he used to sing Dean Martin’s song “Oh Marie” to her, until her nephew took her to get treatment for something or other in Virginia, where she passed away. “She was crying when she left. She didn’t want to leave the center,” he says. “She loved the center. Rest her soul.”
I can’t help noticing how many of Mr. Gus’s stories end with that line.
Mr. Gus says he and Filomena go to all of the wakes. He says it’s hard because it reminds him of his wife, but he goes anyway to respect the families. “Sometimes you do get close to people, and I feel bad when they go,” he says. “I had a lung operation once and there was a friend of mine next to me who had cancer in his stomach. I went home on the weekend and when I got back he had passed away. I felt real bad. I started crying.”
Mr. Gus turns away from the obituary board and walks on.
In the coffee room, a newspaper-boy hat and a two-of-hearts playing card are perched on top of a folding chair on an unused pool table, with a sign that reads “Boogie Chair.” The seniors put it together when a beloved card-playing member passed away. “He always got the two of hearts when he played poker,” Mr. Gus says as we walk by. “That was his hat. Rest his soul.”
Filomena tells me she sees a lot of seniors who say they feel “left behind.” I ask her why, and she says she’s not sure. She hands me a four-page elderly services newsletter, telling me it’s published every month by the city. Past January’s lunch menus and a calendar of senior center activities, under a recipe for Date Nut Bread, I find a list titled, “New Year’s Resolutions for Seniors.”
This year’s goals: “Remember the names of my kids and grandkids,” “learn a new game besides Bingo,” “spend more time on the computer than the toilet,” “learn to pronounce the names of all medications I have to take,” and “learn NOT to say ‘In my day…’” Unsure whether to laugh or wince, I arrive at this one: “See my family more than my doctor.”
When Mr. Gus comes back into the office, he’s holding two large knives. There’s a meeting going on, and he has to cut the tart. Filomena, quickly taking the knives from Mr. Gus’s hands, asks him why he thinks seniors feel left behind. He pauses, then says, “My father used to say to me, a mother and father can take care of a hundred children, but a hundred children can’t take care of a mother and father.”
Mr. Gus might not be able to see his family every day, but he says he’s lucky. Some seniors don’t have family nearby, or they have a family nearby that doesn’t visit. “Depression is a big problem among older adults,” the city’s director of elderly services tells me. “Centers allow people to get out and socialize.”
Mr. Gus’s secret to a long life hasn’t been liver and onions. It’s been staying social and keeping occupied. Mr. Gus has a hundred children, many of them his age. He plays Pinochle with them. He takes their calls to get picked up at the airport, even at 3 o’clock in the morning. He makes them lunch. When a Puerto Rican immigrant joined his family, he was the one that brought her to the doctor on Prince Street. And when, just hours after she’d met him, the nurse asked for her next of kin, Mr. Gus was the one she wrote down.
At 4 p.m., Mr. Gus goes home. He turns off the lights in the craft room and then moves to the ones in the hall. We stand in the gym, across from the WPA mural. “I don’t know what I would’ve done if I hadn’t gone here,” he says, “But the man upstairs takes care of me. Every morning he wakes me up and gives me strength to do what I can, to help the people. It’s better than staying in the four walls.”
I ask him for his phone number in case I forgot any questions. He gives me the number, then recites his entire home address, zip code and all. He lives just four blocks from the center. As he turns off the lights, first flicking them on and off to tease Filomena (“Gus, I told you that makes me dizzy!”), he turns to me.
“I’ve got a motto,” he says as we step outside, “Don’t fuss, call Gus!” He winks, and then closes the door.